In the Middle Ages, the concept of the author (or the auctor) was a little different than it is today. Primarily, it was a role that depended on one’s reference to past authorities (thus, author). Consequently, many of the medieval authors we discuss were primarily translators and adapters of previously written work. Much of The Canterbury Tales, to take a well-known example, is Chaucer’s own satirical take on pre-existing texts. In a patriarchal system, however, most recognized authorities were male. Therefore, it is relatively rare to find a self-identified female scribe or author from the Middle Ages, though current medieval scholarship is challenging preconceived biases in order to uncover and reveal a greater presence of women in literate circles.
One female author, Marie de France, worked primarily on lais, short verse romances (adventure stories). Her translations are dated to the late-twelfth century and are notable for their prominent woman characters (you can see a manuscript and the British Library’s commentary on her work here). Her stories can also be qualified as speculative fiction, since medieval romance was often preoccupied with the uncanny, meaning fairy lovers and werewolves prance through the pages of Marie’s work. We don’t know much about the author herself, but we do see, throughout her work, a preoccupation with women’s happiness in marriage (the fate for most lay women). In today’s column, we’ll briefly look at three lais: Bisclavret, Yonec, and Lanval.
Bislavret is about a lord who changes into a werewolf for three days out of every week. His disappearances trouble his wife, but the text is clear that, at the beginning of the story, they are mutually in love: “He loved her, she him: they loved each other.” She pushes him to tell the truth of the condition, but he is reluctant, thinking that he might lose her. And this is essentially true. Because once the lady hears the full details of his condition, she grows afraid:
“In terror she blushed all bright red, / Filled with fear by this adventure. / Often and often passed through her head / Plans to get right out, escape, for / She didn’t want ever to share his bed.”
Though the lady then goes on to betray her husband, manipulating another lover to help trap her husband in his werewolf form, Marie’s translation nonetheless lends the lady a real, if transient, sympathy here: calling to mind the sexual vulnerability of the wife in a medieval marriage. The lady uses what sexual control she has in an attempt to oust her husband. Ultimately, the text condemns her for her actions, but the early treatment of the lady is worth noting.
Yonec also addresses the condition of a woman in marriage. In this case, the story of the titular character is subordinated to the narrative of his mother, trapped in a loveless marriage. “A rich old man, antique, long-lived” marries a beautiful young woman and, promptly, out of possessive jealousy, locks her away in a tower with an old widow for a guardian.
More than seven years later, the lady has lost her good looks and spirits due to her abuse: “For herself, the best wish she could make her / Was for swift death to come soon and take her.” Though the December-May marriage is a not uncommon trope in medieval literature, few texts are so sympathetic to the young woman trapped in said marriage. The lady curses her “family / and … those, collectively, / Who gave this jealous man my hand, / Gave me his body for my husband.” In despair, she wishes for a lover out of the adventures she has heard:
“Ladies could find lovers who / Were handsome, gentle, valiant, true–/ Nor were they blamed for such affairs.”
Consequent to her wish, a fairy lover does come to the lady and they consort with each other regularly until her husband finds out and kills the lover. The story ends, however, with Yonec, the son of the lady and her fairy lover, wreaking revenge on the evil old lord.
Lastly, Lanval tells the story of a generous young knight, often overlooked in the court of King Arthur, who draws the attentions of a wealthy fairy lover. In this romance, the fairy woman holds all the power, dictating that Lanval cannot tell anyone of her but also gracing him with her physical attentions and worldly wealth. When Guinevere becomes attracted to Lanval, he rejects her advances, remaining faithful to his fairy lover and consequently persecuted by Arthur’s queen. Guinevere is presented as homophobic (no doubt problematically in keeping with the text’s attitude), accusing Lanval of being attracted to men rather than women, and asking her husband to prosecute him for his insult to herself. In order to save Lanval, the fairy lover appears at court, defends his honor, and then rides off with him behind her on the horse:
“When the maiden came out the gate / Lanval made a leap, at full speed, / Up behind her, onto her steed. / With her he’s gone to Avalon– / … / To the fair island far away / She ravished that noble youth.”
The language here reverses our patriarchal assumptions and puts the control of the relationship squarely in the woman’s hands, albeit a fairy woman. And that last bit is important—since we can see how poorly the human women fared in the other two romances.
Through translating these adventure stories, Marie was able to forefront the concern of women in marriage as they navigated the inherent power structures found in these relationships. She is sympathetic to even her antagonists when it comes to narrating their fears and anxieties regarding the men who usually subsumed their identity in marriage. Yonec’s mother, with her tacitly approved affair, is a particularly touching example of this, as she exerts her voice to find her own fairy lover, a character in other romances who more often appeared as dangerous to women or aids to men. Thus, Marie’s work on the lais, which she expresses fear of “letting people forget,” allow her to translate and convey the problems of women also often too easily forgotten.